MONTICELLO, MINN. – For family and friends of 122 members of the Minnesota National Guard, there will be a lot not to talk about around the kitchen table these next couple of days.
Members of the Monticello-based 257th Military Police Company were welcomed home Wednesday from a yearlong deployment that included nine months at U.S. Naval Base Guantanamo Bay. They had been tasked with providing safe, legal, humane and transparent care and custody of the detainees housed at Joint Task Force Guantanamo detention facilities, said the military. Translated, they were prison guards at Gitmo.
Fifteen years after the detention center opened to house high-value suspects in the War on Terror, and eight years after then-President Barack Obama announced he wanted to shut it down, the nature of the deployment at Gitmo may be unique in recent history among Minnesota Guard units. For the time being, it will remain one of the most secretive, too.
By some accounts, there were 41 detainees at Guantanamo Bay as of August 2017, down from a peak of 684 in June 2003. But you won't hear that from the members of the 257th Military Police Company.
The unit's commander, Capt. Jon Schliesing, said training at a mock-up using role players before arriving at Gitmo helped the Guard members prepare for what they might encounter. He said his soldiers performed well.
"No matter how long the days were I never heard a single complaint," he said.
As for what they were doing during those long days?
Mum remains the operative word.
"We were in detention operations in Guantanamo Bay, that's pretty much all I can tell you," he said. "I'm sorry."
None of that seemed important to the crowd gathered Wednesday at the flag-festooned gymnasium at the Monticello Community Center. They just seemed happy that their soldiers would be home for the holidays, no sure bet in the Army.
For those returning, there were mothers to greet, babies to kiss and dogs to hug.
After a delay of more than an hour, Schliesing wasted no time in dismissing the soldiers, even though he admitted contemplating some profound remarks for the occasion on the bus ride in from the airport.
For Sgt. First Class Gary Leshovsky, who was previously deployed to Iraq, the difference between Cuba and a war zone was stark, even if he couldn't talk about what he did at the prison.
"This one is a unique situation, you are in an environment that's not typical to combat zones," he said of Gitmo. "The mission is the mission and you do what you got to do. On your off time you get to enjoy a lot of things. You have beaches. You get to take out boats. You get to go fishing. When you go to Iraq or Afghanistan, you don't have that."
Leshovsky takes a matter-of-fact military approach to the mission in Cuba.
"I can't say anything at the end of the day about it, but if you put 2 and 2 together you can come up with what we did," he said. "The government decides about when and where and how and we go and do."
As Leshovsky cradled one of his grandsons, Cooper, family members held another grandson, Connor, who was born during his deployment. Leshovsky's family greeted him with a sign that said: "Nice to meet you, Grandpa!"
It was the first deployment for 73 of the soldiers, an unusual taste of military life. It was an unusual baptism as well for Ashley Machen, who suddenly found herself learning what it meant to be a military wife after she decided to exchange vows with her fiancé, Adam, shortly before he deployed.
The time difference was minimal and the couple communicated over FaceTime and through telephone calls. A member of the unit's family support group checked in with Ashley every month.
"We had been engaged in February of 2015, we knew the wedding was going to be planned and the deployment was announced," Ashley said. "We got to talking and we just thought it was better to exchange our vows before he left."
The couple plan a larger ceremony in August. The two have been together for almost four years and Adam plans on making the military a career.
Adam's father, Vic, who had a 21-year career serving in both the active duty military and Reserves, including the first Gulf War, said he was glad his son's first deployment was to Cuba rather than to Iraq or Afghanistan.
"Kind of a transition phase," he said. "You stay in the military, you're going to be going places. You stay in, that's the world we live in today."
Added Ashley: "I'm sure there will be changes coming up."